Harvard Study Shows Face-To-Face Meeting Value, Rising Virtual Interest

A Harvard Business Review study of 2,300 business leaders in the United States, Europe and Asia released last month confirmed that face-to-face meetings remain essential to doing business and are preferred by executives over remote alternatives for many business interactions. Despite those sentiments, however, a couple of recent studies show companies increasingly making use of remote conferencing technologies and other communications tools.

Although the study found that 79 percent of respondents claim that "in-person meetings are the most effective way to meet new clients to sell business" and 89 percent said such face-to-face interaction is "essential for 'sealing the deal,'" about 60 percent also use virtual meetings technologies "very frequently."

In a survey of 61 travel managers for large market companies, UBS found that about three-quarters of the respondents have "moved to replace air travel with alternatives such as videoconferencing in an effort to reduce future air travel spend." The Harvard Business Review study also shows companies are trending toward remote options, as 60 percent of the respondents reported "frequent" use of teleconference and 44 percent expect to up remote conferencing in the next year, though about 55 percent "rarely or never" deploy videoconferencing.

Releasing the study, sponsored by British Airways, during a press conference at the National Business Travel Association convention in San Diego last month, Harvard Business Review research editor Angela Herrin noted that while many companies had seen cuts to travel and meetings, "there was not as much videoconferencing as we thought we would see."

She said the research shows that "face-to-face wins in every category" but one: managing suppliers, a task business leaders said could be conducted by phone, e-mail and other remote options. For interacting with clients, negotiating deals and understanding customers, most respondents agreed that in-person meetings were the preferred method.

"Our survey revealed that what most businesspeople really want is solid human connections," Herrin said. "Technology serves as an effective supplement, but face-to face communication is the broadest bandwidth communication you can have in professional life, helping to cement long-term relationships and drive business growth."

Still, it remains unclear to what extent travel volumes will return to allow for the face-to-face interactions business executives deem so important. Only 34 percent of UBS survey respondents said there was "pent-up demand for air travel." Though many companies expect to increase travel spending next year over what is expected to remain a craterous 2009, some industry players are convinced it will be years before they resume pre-recession levels.

Continental Airlines CEO Larry Kellner, however, was more optimistic on the return of face-to-face meetings, calling cuts to travel and meetings a shorter-term phenomenon. "It will be back," he said. "I'm a believer that, in the short run, people will cut back on groups, people will cut back on meetings, people will say they're going to teleconference more. We had a meeting with a bunch of our big corporate customers and we had a debate. A number of guys said corporate travel would never come back to the level it was and that they were using videoconferencing. Before I could even respond, another guy said, 'No, no. We tried that three years ago and at the end of the day, while it seems like fun, so much happens in the bar, over dinner, at the golf course. That's where the ideas ferment.'"

Kellner said remote conferencing can help with formal decisions, but misses out on the dynamic that only in-person meetings can create. "There's an awful lot of work that happens one on one. Just think about any group dynamic you've been in where you're having a meeting and someone says, 'Let's go out in the hallway and talk about this for a minute, have a sidebar.' You can't have a sidebar in a videoconference. What the guy described beautifully was that it's a tool you could use, it made the company run better, but it didn't cut their travel."

Originally published Sept. 21, 2009